Playing with Pele and Kilauea’s Fire

The ancient Hawaiians believed volcano goddess Pele lived in Kilauea Volcano. They also believed the volcano, its lava, and smoke were Pele’s body. To appease the fiery goddess, the ancient Hawaiians threw offerings of live pigs into Kilauea’s lava lake, Halemaumau. The Hawaiians tried to keep Pele satisfied. It’s because when she was angry, the Kilauea Volcano would erupt, destroying vegetation and homes and killing unfortunate people and animals (land and sea) nearby.

Along with the destruction of life, Pele delivers a mean pyrotechnic show. Splashing lava and projectiles, including rocks, shoot out of the volcano and land onto the ground. The lava crawls on land, smoldering whatever lies in its way, and creates new land for the Big Island.

From the 1840s, drawn by stories of Kilauea’s fury, non-Hawaiians (usually Caucasians/Haole) have trekked up Kilauea to witness the lava and the lava lake Halemaumau. Many of them arrived after riding a steamer boat from Honolulu to Hilo. Following local Native-Hawaiian tour guides, the visitors climbed Kilauea during their two-to-three day journey. By day the visitors walked or rode on horseback up the volcano’s slope. By night they camped, shivering in the cold, thin air, smelling the volcano’s sulfur, and occasionally feeling light earthquakes.

Above the sea level by 4,000 feet, Kilauea’s summit was usually cooler than sea level by 12 to 15 degrees. While Kilauea’s steam vents could scald people at 145 degree Fahrenheit, people have used them for warmth in freezing temperatures and for cooking. In the earlier years, visitors slept in makeshift shelters made of branches, ferns, and tapa (Hawaiian fabric) near the vents. Eventually, a grass house and a wooden structure (1866) were built, and visitors could sleep in them.

Built in 1877, the Volcano House featured a steam sulfur bath with vapor from Kilauea’s vents. Near the hotel’s backdoor, servants used the vents to heat water.

In 1905, the secretary of Hawaii Promotion committee promoted Kilauea to tourists as a place where they could have their meal cooked by volcano heat. The Hawaiian Gazette described his meal with George Lycurgus, owner of the Volcano House, around a hot crevice on the floor of Halemaumau crater:

“The coffee pot was placed over the crack and the water was soon boiling merrily. The skillet was likewise put there, bacon sputtered as soon as laid in the pan, and in a short time the steak was being cooked to a nice turn.”

When journalists from the U.S. mainland visited Kilauea in 1906, they stayed at the Volcano House. Outdoors, in heavy shoes, they trod over Kilauea’s sulphur beds and steam vents to Kilauea’s crater. During their three-and-a-half mile journey down the crater, their guide told tales of the volcano and showed the journalists attractions such as the Devil’s Kitchen, Madam Pele’s Parlor, and The Little Beggar.

The journalists used the volcano’s heat to toast their postcards and prepare coffee on top of a heated crevice. And a daring journalist “stealthily threw a bunch of firecrackers down a crack and nearly stampeded the party when they exploded.”

When The California Girls visited Kilauea in the same year, they did the same activities: “burn [postcards], made coffee, and cooked things over the cracks at the volcano.”

Halemaumau's glow at nightA year later, U.S. congressmen visited Kilauea to study Hawaii’s agricultural possibilities. In the Volcano House, they ate food heated by Kilauea on tables decked with roses and ferns.

Through the Volcano House’s windows, tourists visitors witnessed Halemaumau Crater, a cauldron of gas and molten lava. By day white sulfur fumes billow out of the crater at day; by night the lava lake’s ember glow, illuminating volcano goddess Pele’s home.

– Alice Kim

Related Pages
Hawaii Groundwater & Geothermal Resources Center
Jules Tavernier, the Volcano Artist
Volcanoes and Hawaii Newspapers

Articles from Chronicling America

Newspaper Articles about Visiting Kilauea in the 1840s

“Miscellany: Great Eruption of the Volcano of Kilauea”
Vermont telegraph, September 1, 1841, Page 200

“Natives Meet Governor With Leis and Luaus”
Pacific commercial advertiser, February 14, 1904, Page 2

“A Trip to the Volcano” (fourth column, bottom)
Pacific commercial advertiser, June 12, 1904, Page 2

“Volcano the Attraction”
The Hawaiian gazette, October 31, 1905, Image 5

“Wonders of Hawaii Enjoyed by Editors” (Last column, middle)
Evening bulletin, September 20, 1906, Part II, Image 5